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Review: Radio Girls, by Sarah-Jane Stratford
NAL, 2016. 367 pp. $16

Maisie Musgrave, a young woman down to her last tuppence, gets a secretarial job at the BBC, a newfangled and perhaps not entirely respectable organization in 1926. After all, what is radio, how does it work, and isn’t it improper to hear a disembodied voice? But, like the protagonist in this engaging, amusing novel, the BBC is about to spread its wings and soar. The real questions involve how bumpy the ride will be, and who will learn what along the way.

Maisie, who looks, feels, and acts like a doormat, could use a lift. Growing up in Toronto, she was bullied for much of her young life, labeled “Mousie Maisie” with no kindness, yet some accuracy. Maisie has no idea who her father was, except that his name is Edwin Musgrave, and he didn’t stay long. Her stagestruck mother, Georgina, has no use for her, and her grandparents want nothing to do with her. So she has come to London, for reasons not entirely clear, feeling somehow that England offers the roots she has never known.

Consequently, getting a job at the BBC, to Maisie a posh outfit where breeding and education matter above all, is more than a godsend–it’s a lifeline. And she clings to it with all her might, which, with experience, proves stronger than she’d ever have guessed.

The first BBC aerial, atop Selfridges, the Oxford Street department store, London, 1926 (courtesy “The Dawn of the Wireless in the U.K.”)

To me, this is the best part of Radio Girls: the coming-of-age story; a young woman learning to ask questions rather than keep the silence she’s been taught; the office politics, invariably charged with sexism; and the working of a radio institution as it invents itself. Stratford excels at all this, and the narrative clips along, as Maisie learns the city, and about life:

The [tram] ride was long and she had to stand, but she didn’t mind. The car had a rhythmic sway, the bell tinkled happily, and one never knew when a sudden screech or thrust would disrupt the song, jolting them all out of their morning meditation. It was a kind of jazz, the only kind she could afford, and so she embraced the fizz of cigarette smoke, the lingering smell of coffee, and the crinkle of newspapers that added to the hum and percussion. It wasn’t stealing to read the paper over a man’s shoulder, gleaning nuggets of the world and enjoying the smell of Palmolive shaving cream. And she watched London unfold before her.

The chief conflict lies between the BBC’s director-general, Reith, and Hilda Matheson, who runs the section called Talks, and whose protegée Maisie eventually becomes. Reith is a Puritan who hates controversy or anything his nineteenth-century mind can’t wrap itself around, which is just about everything Hilda lives for. He’d fire her, if he could, but she has powerful friends, and the Talks programs–short discussions, presentations, or debates on every conceivable topic–generate tons of fan mail and expand the BBC’s audience.

I like this story, and despite my criticisms, I think Radio Girls is worth reading. Nevertheless, Stratford adds more, and that’s where she gets into trouble. The prologue, which dangles like the useless appendage it is, suggests a thriller, and yes, that subplot emerges about two-thirds of the way through, late in the game and superfluous. To be fair, the thriller part has life to it, with a couple famous figures contributing zestful dialogue and presence. But it’s too earnest by half–a screed against Fascism–and utterly improbable, whereas the rest I believe implicitly.

Besides, I’m more interested in Maisie and her struggles than in Hilda Matheson, her boss. Stratford explains in her Author’s Note that Matheson, a real historical figure, fascinates her. I agree that Matheson’s a worthy subject, perhaps for a future novel, but dragging her connection to MI5 and the clumsy thriller resolution into Radio Girls seems a stretch, at best.

I’d have also liked to see a firmer grounding in the era. Though characters talk about the Great War and the politics of the Twenties and early Thirties, you don’t see them. Stratford conveys Maisie’s poverty with great vividness, but London has no wounded veterans holding tin cups on street corners, no smog or grit to blight the air or the soul. Reith recites the mantra of a man from his time and social class, but Radio Girls doesn’t show what he’s talking about; it’s all abstract.

Reith’s a problem in himself, like the other men in this book. They have no inner lives and no contradictions, only flat surfaces, and though Stratford offers clever observations about them, the men are simply that, observed. Though I detest their sexism and what they stand for, and I cheer for Maisie and Hilda to go onward and upward, as they both like to say, I wish Radio Girls delivered more than the obvious.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.